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June 26, 2006

Quote of the Day

Sebastian Mallaby:

Meanwhile, people work more hours. They commute longer because they've moved to the exurbs in search of larger homes; they've got spacious entertainment rooms but no mental space for entertaining. And then there's the subtle effect of the culture. "Family time" is endlessly extolled, and lovers emit poetry and song about every facet of their relationships. But when was the last time a rock singer or a new man waxed lyrical about friendship?

Context here is that Americans are getting lonelier and lonelier, with fewer reported friends and confidantes. I'm serious in my conviction that the most serious problem in American life is lonesomeness, particularly for middle aged adults who end up divorced. I don't talk about it much because I don't know what to do -- the brightest point on the horizon is the internet, but while I feel social networking and MeetUps may facilitate friendships in my age bracket, the same techno-comfort hasn't yet creeped up on the Boomers.

That said, little is worse for your health, your happiness, and your future outcomes than lack of friends and social interaction. But we move away from our families, move away from our friends, switch cities for jobs, settle in protected suburbs, and generally live a life conducive to work and family, but not to friends. Someone told me recently that, in Italy, families vacation with other families, leisure time is socially expansive. Sounds wonderful. So the only policy suggestion I do have is that, maybe if we had a bit more time off, there'd be greater flexibility for that sort of thing.

June 26, 2006 | Permalink


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"Stay Free" by the Clash comes immediately to my mind, so it's been awhile. But my musical knowledge has giant, odd-shaped holes in it.

Posted by: witless chum | Jun 26, 2006 3:43:25 PM

In the past most of our social relationships were determined by economics. Now that almost anyone with a job (in my country at least) is able to afford to live on their own it is very liberating. However, society has not yet changed to fill in the gaps in social lifes caused by our improved but impersonal economic situation. I for one cannot bring myself to ask a stranger on a mandate. I just don't feel comfortable doing it. Since I left my company and started working for myself I pretty much have no friends. The skills I learnt as a child, "Hey, you wanna play Superfriends?" no longer seem to apply. (Although if I did find someone who wanted to play Superfriends, we could have a lot of fun together. Just as long as I don't have to be Robin.)

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Jun 26, 2006 4:09:31 PM

they've got spacious entertainment rooms but no mental space for entertaining.

I'm not sure what Mallaby means by "no mental space," but it applies to avaiability of personal time and accessibility of anyone to entertain, as well. An exurban structure means that "having people over" requires everyone invited to commute 30 minutes to your place. Then, time spent entertaining others is time taken away from spending with your immediate family, who doesn't see you because you're spending all day working and commuting. However, "entertaining" is the only time you're going to have to see your friends, because it's unlikely you'll run into them on your way to work or around town.

I actually don't see much wrong with working more hours, but when that work time isn't integrated with your social life and community, working more hours is going to seem like it's taking away from other things.

On the other hand, what happens if you present someone with a choice of more friends or a bigger house? Many of them might opt for the bigger house because, after all, what good is it to have friends if you can't brag about how many square feet your house is?

Posted by: Constantine | Jun 26, 2006 4:22:13 PM

What about virtual communities?

Posted by: Frenchdoc | Jun 26, 2006 4:50:07 PM

I think the lack of leisure time is crucial here. Europeans, who have significantly better health than us, have less money, but much more leisure time (4-6 weeks guaranteed paid vacation a year). Obviously the differences in their health care systems and ours account for part of the difference, but a recent British study showed that even Americans with good access to health care are on average unhealthier than their European counterparts. I'm also thinking of a study of Amish people here in the US, who have a very low rate of cardiovascular disease, despite a high-fat diet. The study attributed the difference to their low-tech lifestyles, which require a lot of walking, but I'm willing to bet their strong social bonds are a huge factor also. Americans have foolishly bought into an expensive, low-activity and low-socialization lifestyle, and we're paying for it.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD, ARNP | Jun 26, 2006 5:04:39 PM

This is probably the last blog I should be posting these sentiments : silly as allowing the religious to dominate social conventions was, taking one day off in seven, not running retail stores 24/7 ( rolling up the sidewalks ) and gathering with your community for coffee klatch ( or kvetch local politics as a social event for service clubs ) was not that hard to take.
Saying that society has lost its focus on what's important and thinking spirituality is solely a preoccupation of braindead syncophants is to lose sight of the idea that personal intereaction in the flesh has advantages.
Try reading the oldie "The Naked Sun" - I think that's the title - the first of the Daneel Olivaw Robot Detective books by the author of "I, Robot", Isaac Asimov. Science fiction, according to one tradition, was supposed to predict possible futures : we might be on our way.

Posted by: opit | Jun 26, 2006 5:21:25 PM

Partially the design of our towns plays a factor I think. Portland has been the a center of exurbia for quite a while, with endless piles of apartments and townhouses filling out all but the central part of the metro area.

European towns nearly always have places to walk, talk and meet. Courtyards, walking areas, places to sit and talk whatever. The exurban complexes have no meeting places, no walking areas beyond the path to the office, mail and laundry facilities. The houses are notmuch better. The strip malls and shopping areas that spring up to service these people are not about hanging out, but about throughput. No hanging out, just get in, buy something, eat it, then go back to your cage.

..mind you Im also talking about a city with some of the highest amount of parks of any US metro area. But those are mostly seperate from the living areas, you have to go drive to them.

Ger out, do something, have freinds, be happy... gee imagine that this kind of lifestyle would lead to longer, higher quality life, who would have guessed?

Posted by: david b | Jun 26, 2006 5:41:57 PM

A couple of years ago I picked up a client at the airport who was coming in from Germany and had never been to the US before. It was about a 30 minute drive from the airport to the hotel, driving through some residential areas on the way, nice sunny spring day. The client was very quiet and a little anxious for awhile and finally asked "did something terrible happen here today"? After a bit of deciphering, we figured out that what was worrying her was that there was absolutely no one outside. Not a soul to be seen on the sidewalks or even in front of their houses. She thought that there must have been some sort of disaster or threat and everyone was hiding inside their homes. It was kind of amusing to us I guess but for her it was really spooky.

Posted by: sprocket | Jun 26, 2006 5:59:03 PM

This explains the growth of mega-churches. As long as you sign on to the premise, it's easy entry to friends with activities of some kind or another going on 24 by 7. One of the mega-churches in your own home county even has an improv troupe.

Posted by: Ann | Jun 26, 2006 6:35:55 PM

"Friends In Low Places"?

OK, not really a rock song. "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight" comes closer.

Posted by: Thlayli | Jun 26, 2006 6:44:11 PM

The Real Paul Jones has a fairly different interpretation of the study's findings, and he sounds like he's actually read the report.

I'm connected, to varying degrees, with people all over the world now.

Posted by: JoshNarins | Jun 26, 2006 7:07:25 PM

The true genius of the LDS--and the reason it's the fastest growing church in the world--is its model of social organization (and, not incidentally, control). Every night of the week has an activity (including 'family home night'). Any member of the faith can move to any community with a significant LDS population and instantly plug into an advanced social (and social services) network. That (and the absence of such networks outside the church) is an amazingly powerful tool in recruiting and keeping members.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 26, 2006 11:44:54 PM

I have exactly one close friend who I hardly ever see. Working graveyard shift doesn't help.

Posted by: merlallen | Jun 27, 2006 7:12:07 AM

...taking one day off in seven, not running retail stores 24/7 ( rolling up the sidewalks ) and gathering with your community for coffee klatch ( or kvetch local politics as a social event for service clubs ) was not that hard to take.

I'm with opit. This was railed against becuase of it's religious roots, but many like opit and myself, would agree that if you don't make time for social time, you just won't have it.....and we don't

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jun 27, 2006 9:07:39 AM

Perhaps lonesomeness is all about our cultural proclivity for self-indulgent narcissism. The Me Generation had to produce something to give itself purpose.

Posted by: syn | Jun 27, 2006 11:43:08 AM

the transient nature and pace of our lives makes it very hard to remain deeply connected.
more and more things feel a mile wide and an inch deep in the world. our connectedness with other people, our connectedness with nature seems so broken.
.....it is so easy to leave and start over in a society that presents infinite choice and quick fixes...as family members move away, circles of friends change and disappear over time...one keeps moving forward. it doesnt surprise me that the buddhist view of non-attachment is so popular today...it fits so well with a society, displaced, at large...with very weak roots. it sort of creates an easy justification for that way of life.
things seems to last, for a little while..or until no longer convenient or interesting....but "temporary" is only insufficiency.
...working on a suicide and crisis hotline, one sees/feels the effects of loneliness on the soul. without close ties to bind, it is hard to feel the nourishment of deep and sturdy roots, hard to feel stable and strong in the storm.
...love, patience,care,compassion....is the only way to heal the heart and the world.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jun 27, 2006 11:50:01 AM

Perhaps Americans are unhealthy because we are culturally held-down in order to make everyone equally feel good about themselves, like the theme in the movie "The Incredibles" ie,. exceptionalism is bad so stop striving because you might harm another's self-esteem. We end up having to carry heavy weight so as not to offend other's sensitivities. In other words, we are junked-up from consuming all these past four decades equalized misery for all.

Posted by: syn | Jun 27, 2006 11:53:25 AM

I think that certainlyh people here and in many othe countries, I would say Western countries are getting lonelier and lonelier. I think that there are several factors about it, but one thing that I find incredibly interesting about life in the US -I have lived here for 10 years- it is how fast all is and how little time people take to meet others and also this unreal desire for perfection. I mean perfection in bodies -look at the number of gyms-, perfection in careers -look at how people changes jobs and with that moving from Miami to Seattle if it that proves something like an increase in salary etc.-, the excesive need to drive and with that alone everywhere and rarely accepting to take public transportation even in places where it is available and it is reliable such as DC where I live. Then, if it all is about me and me and then some more me, then when there is time to the other who is not me. Starting to make friends at an age close to retirement, for me, is to also to relearn the social skills that were not used since high school if not before.

Posted by: Angelo | Jun 27, 2006 4:16:18 PM

+1 to opit.

I can say that with absolute conviction because I am part of a community that completely unplugs from the world on Saturdays. Because Orthodox Jews are not allowed to drive cars on the Sabbath, we generally live within walking distance of the synagogue. We have actual communities, and a thriving tradition of hospitality and inviting guests over on a regular basis. Both are more difficult to find in the general culture.

Posted by: Mastiff | Jun 27, 2006 4:37:00 PM

i agree with all of your cultural observations.
imagine if trees were always moving around in the forest...without roots...
it is very difficult to keep transplanting oneself...
reinventing oneself...
love, laughter, comfort, gentle familiarity....one doesnt mix water to instantly create an environment where one can feel sheltered and somewhat protected...
...not good to run faster than your angel can fly.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jun 27, 2006 4:41:29 PM

and mastiff....

i think there is much to be learned and admired in the observances and rituals in orthodox judaism...
for the preservation of the family, the community, and the sanctity of each person.
in the performance and adherence to mitzvot, there is a constant attentiveness to the sacredness of all things and right action in the world....
that is what one is hopefully striving for.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jun 27, 2006 4:48:03 PM

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